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Imagining Isolation, Suspending Time and Space: Diving into the Depths of Almayer’s Folly Ashvin Devasundaram

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Imagining Isolation, Suspending Time and Space: Diving into the Depths of Almayer’s Folly

Ashvin Devasundaram

Do you know what it’s like to look for something and never find it?” This agonised declamation by the eponymous central character in Almayer’s Folly effectively captures the ethos of Chantal Akerman’s tour de force. Her latest offering leaves the viewer tantalisingly close to unravelling its tangled skein, desperately near to demystifying its multifarious layers. No such cathartic denouement arrives however, and all one is left with is a brooding sense of loss. A hypnotic rhythm punctuates key plot points in Almayer's Folly, commencing with a bone-jarringly surreal set piece. The camera glides along, following the painstakingly slow progress of an anonymous individual, towards a stage in a tropical brothel (we conjecture that it is somewhere in the Far East). A lip-synching singer gyrates to the incongruous strains of Dean Martin's Sway, with a bevy of dancing girls, their marionette-like movements forming a bizarre backdrop. The individual turns assailant, stepping on-stage to knife the singer in the heart, as Dean Martin croons inexorably. Verisimilitude is then suspended for what seems like an eternity, while a dusky girl steps out from the grotesquely desultory movements of the chorus back line. She proceeds to deliver an impassioned acapella version of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, in a vocal rendition that recalls the virtuoso performance of the mysterious ingénue in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

The camera locks into a disconcerting close-up of the girl's performance, tight framing pinioning the viewer in a disturbing and claustrophobic cinematic space. This extended and disorientating prologue throws the audience into a domain where equilibrium is already disrupted, temporality distorted and linearity contested. Adapted from Joseph Conrad's homonymous debut novel, Akerman's film preserves the poetic intensity that suffuses Conrad's writing, a lyricism evocative of the ethereal enclosing canopy of the Malaysian jungle. The plot engages with the travails of Kaspar Almayer, tormented by his obsession with appropriating wealth and riches in the jungles of Malaysia and dreams of returning with his daughter Nina to a European life filled with opulence and ostentation. It is this very delusion of grandeur that proves to be his downfall. He is lured by greed to enter into an alliance of convenience with a native woman. This loveless relationship eventually leads to her mental instability. The only beacon of hope for Almayer, apart from his quest for an oriental ‘El Dorado’, is his daughter, born from an ill-fated marriage. However, the line between fatherly duty and the selfish imposition of a fantastical and unattainable ‘European dream’ on Nina inevitably results in conflict, archetypal of the colonial narrative. Almayer's innumerable follies include sending Nina away to receive a Western education. This proves disastrous, as the alienating experience traumatises Nina, sowing the seeds for her visceral resentment.

Conrad's text excavates compelling discourses of colonisation and the Occident/Orient divide. The film, to an extent, deals with this, focussing on Nina’s mixed heritage. However, the film does exercise artistic liberties, including shifting the locale to Cambodia, and infusing the female character Nina with an almost existential empowerment, an agency that resonates with Akerman's enduring commitment to the portrayal of strong women. Indeed, Nina metamorphoses into the primary character. There is a wonderfully gripping scene which plays out almost like an oedipal drama, between Almayer, Nina and her boyfriend (who turns out to be the singer in the prologue). The young couple have an emotionally charged exchange with Almayer, who in turn implores, threatens and curses Nina.

Almayer’s Folly echoes the visual aesthetic of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, drawing parallels between a common hamartia afflicting Aguirre and Almayer: their obsession with wealth. Akerman's masterful mise-en-scène is embellished by beautiful cinematography and lighting, inducing a dreamlike stupor that directly addresses the viewer's subconscious. Particularly striking is her visualisation of ever-present water: the backwaters, the river and the sea. Carl Jung has always subscribed to the Eastern philosophy of water as a symbol of the unconscious, a liquid tapestry between realms of reality and the unconscious. Akerman reproduces Conrad's perception of water as a leitmotif, delving into it as a figurative liminal space of ritual ambiguity, a suspension of time and identity. This is a study of human isolation, one that reverberates long after the end-credits.

Ashvin has an M.A in Mass Communications from the University of Bedfordshire. He has worked as a Documentary Researcher with Channel 4, also producing and directing an independent short film ‘Crossing the Bridge’ (about a Gurkha WWII Victoria Cross medal recipient, and his links with Joanna Lumley’s family), which was screened at BAFTA, in London. He has conducted film analysis, World Cinema and documentary filmmaking workshops across India. Ashvin is currently doing a PhD at Heriot-Watt University’s Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies on a full-scholarship. His primary research areas are film philosophy, film analysis, postcolonialism and postmodernism. Although interested in World Cinema in general, Ashvin is especially fascinated by the films of Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, Mike Leigh, Tom McCarthy and endless others...

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